"You are me. I made you."
One of the most terrifying statements a father can say to his son, this iteration forms the basis for Being Flynn, an upcoming drama directed, written and produced by Paul Weitz.
The film is an adaptation of the memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn. Paul Dano plays Flynn, a young writer who grows up without his father. Soon after taking a job at a homeless shelter, however, he encounters his homeless father, Jonathan Flynn (Robert De Niro), and must confront his lack of compassion for not just his father but for himself.
Albeit being a homeless alcoholic and an ex-convict, Jonathan Flynn maintains a high self-worth. He considers himself one of the three greatest writers America has ever produced, alongside J. D. Salinger and Mark Twain. This contrasts with Nick's own guilt over his mother's suicide and his question of what will become of him if he becomes a writer like his father.
The movie flits between scenes of Nick's adult life and childhood. In one of the childhood scenes, his mother, Jody (Julianne Moore), comes home from work and hands a wanted poster of Jonathan Flynn to her 11-year-old son telling him, "Don't ever become a writer."
In a later scene, Jody returns home after a difficult day at work and finds one of Flynn's short stories about a child whose mom is always working. Nick hadn't finished the story yet, so it didn't include the part about how grateful he is for a mother so dedicated to her child. Jody takes it the wrong way and, in her depression, shoots herself.
Nick's guilt still plagues his life when he reconnects with his father. Director Weitz says Jonathan is the only one able to destroy Nick's sense of guilt.
"I do think we grow through seeing our own flaws and seeing some really harsh things sometimes, and his dad is really the only person who can crack him open on a certain level," he said. "Jonathan says to him, 'You can't kill somebody with writing. Nobody's that good a writer.' Jonathan Flynn, if nothing else, is a survival artist, and he teaches Nick a lesson in survival. That's really what he learns from his dad: base-level tools for getting on with life."
Weitz admits this project was a labor of love. He says he read Flynn's memoir right after it was published and it got under his skin.
"I have in various points in my life spent some time with people who were either homeless or who had been homeless, and I've spent time with people who were addicts, including the people I was closest with when I was in high school," Weitz said. "So I had this sense first-off that everyone has a particular story to bring into the situation."
He worked on it for seven years and completed 30 drafts of the screenplay before deciding on the final adaptation he brought to the screen. Nick Flynn read almost every draft with amusement and support. He also brought Weitz, Dano and De Niro to Pine Street Inn, the Boston homeless shelter he had worked at.
These visits to Pine Street Inn inspired one of the film's most innovative scenes, in which Flynn's fellow workers at the shelter introduce themselves as how Nick views them. For instance, one young woman working there looks at the camera and says, "I want to live my life the way Christ does. And my rich parents."
"I was worried I would feel like I wasn't dealing with the subject matter in a respectful enough fashion," Weitz said. "But that's what I felt when I went there, and that's what Nick was going through in his life when he worked there. It was just true to Nick's experience."
Indeed it is easy to tell upon seeing this movie that Weitz aimed to keep the story true to Nick's life. As it tells the story of two writers, the scenes are well-crafted to include the irony that interplays between the movie and reality. In one particular scene, a homeless man tells Jonathan, "They're making a movie about my life." Jonathan answers, ironically, that nobody would pay to see such a "redundant, piece of shit movie."
Amid the darkness inherent in such a movie about homelessness and addiction, there is always the lurking hope of recovery. The film takes its audience into Nick's complex personal problems and into the depths they lead him, but also conveys the catharsis of accepting what has passed in order to move on.
In addition to this film's well-crafted, interlinking storyline, the acting is superb. Dano brings an ever-present intensity to the role of Nick Flynn, while Moore manages to keep her portrayal of Jody from being completely tragic, rather aiming for a sense of carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. But arguably the most impressive performance in the movie came from De Niro. He alternates between playing a charming, egotistical poet and a harsh bigot who, when set off, goes on rants that are incoherent yet still convey the essence of Jonathan Flynn to audiences.
Weitz says he is extremely satisfied with De Niro's performance, although it's hard to say whether Jonathan feels the same way.
"There was a very funny meeting that we had when I went with De Niro and Nick to visit his dad, at which point instead of being intimidated by Robert De Niro, Jonathan looked across at him and said, 'So do you think you can pull this off?' And Nick said, 'Dad, he's a very well-respected actor. He did The Godfather.' And Jonathan said, 'Yeah, I hear you. Good. But can you play me?' He's retained this sense of narcissism to this day."
Being Flynn is in theaters now. Check out our Q&A with director/producer/writer Paul Weitz here.